“I was wondering whether anyone has anything good to say about age as an organizing principle?” someone asked during the audience Q&A for “Curators: The Younger Than Jesus Effect,” a discussion hosted by the School of Visual Arts. Jenny Jaskey, director and curator of Hunter College’s Artist’s Institute, recoiled, “No one thinks it is.” When the next audience member rephrased the query—Is there an artist under 30 that you do like?—the five curators on the panel, all based in New York, were smiling but clearly looked uncomfortable. Alaina Claire Feldman, director of exhibitions at Independent Curators International, said flat out, “I think that’s exactly what we’re here not to talk about…. I kind of refuse that question.” Then why, I scratched my head for the hundredth time, are we even here?
Weeks after the Occupy Movement started, in September 2011, museums began racing to collect the posters, flyers, and other materials from the protests. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History dispatched archivists from Washington, DC, and the New-York Historical Society and the Museum of the City of New York sent representatives downtown. In an editorial for CNN published in November, Michele Elam, a professor of English at Stanford University, wrote, “Occupy art might just be the movement’s most politically potent tool in its dramatic reframing of the racial dynamics of a populist uprising frequently characterized as largely white and ‘hippie.’” Academics, museums, and the media clearly recognized the importance of both Occupy and its visual culture in American history.
After being asked to participate on this panel, I wanted to know what kind of writing on socially engaged art is already out there. My conclusion is that there’s a lot of writing on socially engaged art out there. We have books devoted to the subject by Grant Kester, Claire Bishop, Pablo Helguera, Tom Finkelpearl, Nato Thompson, and Gregory Sholette, among others. We have essays by the above authors, as well as by Ben Davis, Steve Lambert, and Yates McKee. (Why so many men, I wonder?) They write on Project Row Houses, Theaster Gates, Suzanne Lacy, Tania Bruguera, Superflex, and the Yes Men, as well as projects sponsored by Creative Time, Art in Odd Places, and local and state arts councils across the country.
“People have lost faith in traditional democracy,” said the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe. “They have a vote but not a voice.” But rather than call for revolution during her talk at Columbia University, she emphasized the need for better, more inclusive representation within institutions of power, such as when which leaders “come to power through election in order to implement a set of radical reforms.”
At the end of the first chapter of 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, the New York–based art critic and editor Ben Davis writes that a “theory of class might provide the missing center of the debate about art.” Indeed, the use, value, and status of art—especially in relation to politics and economics—have been the subject of a constantly flailing conversation since the Occupy moment, since the Great Recession, since the Bush years, since the rise of the biennial, since the Culture Wars, since Reagan, since Conceptual art, since Duchamp—okay, you get the point. It’s exactly this kind of exasperating, roundabout conversation that Davis wants to displace, and his new book does exactly that with resounding success.
For the final panel of the Museum as Hub Conference, called “Institutions after Art,” the moderator, Taraneh Fazeli, education associate at the New Museum, wanted to explore institutional programming, alliances, content, context, and power dynamics, not just the status of structures that support artists. The Museum as Hub has supported exhibitions as a coproducer. What else can noncuratorial departments, independent groups, and nonprofit organizations do?
Whether it was the furor of the first few weeks of Occupy Wall Street or the popularity of the presenters, more than one hundred listeners packed the main gallery space of Art in General to hear a discussion on “what the neoliberal economy has imposed on artists,” according to one panelist, and on what the art world’s 99 percent can do to get ahead. Cosponsored by Silvershed, “Off the Clock: Working with Flexible Labor, Social Networks, and Everyday Life” allowed four panelists and a moderator to thrash out the intersections of art, labor, and community.